Katy Stenta, the pastor of a small church in Albany, N.Y., and the mother of three boys, has experienced pandemic-related child-care shortages from all sides. She helps run a nursery school out of her Presbyterian church, and the newest aide they hired keeps missing work because her child has asthma. Ms. Stenta, 38, has been filling in for her.
The pastor’s three sons have a range of caretaking needs. Her oldest child, 13, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Her middle child, 11, has autism, A.D.H.D. and stomach issues that require extra support. Her youngest, 9, has a reading disability. A respite caregiver, who is paid by the state, helps with her son with autism for 12 hours a week, but that worker cannot legally help with the other two children.
Ms. Stenta’s family has not been able to find a babysitter who can take all three children to the two different schools they attend. Both because it’s difficult to find someone who can handle her 11-year-old’s complex needs and also, since the pandemic began, the supply of babysitters has “completely dried up,” she said. So Ms. Stenta and her husband, who is a children’s librarian, spend about three hours each day shuttling their children back and forth to school.
“The last thing we want to do is quit our jobs, but we have to take care of our kids,” she said — not that quitting is a serious option for either of them. “We’re not bringing home big bucks serving the community.”
Even before the pandemic, Ms. Stenta said that she had to have a flexible job to deal with her family’s considerable caregiving needs — and that’s common among parents whose children have disabilities. Though her church is understanding, juggling work and child-care has been incredibly hard for her and her husband.
Ms. Stenta’s situation is a common one at this stage in the pandemic. When Covid-19 shutdowns hit the United States in March 2020, it was a shock to the entire labor force, though mothers with school-age children were disproportionately affected. They were more likely to take leave from their jobs or exit the work force entirely than fathers or people without children were, according to data analysis by Misty Heggeness, a principal economist and senior adviser at the U.S. Census Bureau.
While many of these mothers have returned to the work force, somewhere between 900,000 and one million have stopped working to support their families, and according to Ms. Heggeness, these mothers tend to be in dual-income households where their families could survive on one salary. In single-parent families and families that need two incomes to keep the lights on, mothers have returned to their jobs — but they have done so while day care and aftercare options are scarcer than they were prepandemic.
Though moms have not left the labor market in droves, “I think that makes it more worrisome,” said Ms. Heggeness. “Because it means over the past two years you have this core group of women who have essentially been doing double duty 24/7 and not getting recognized for it. Nobody’s coming to rescue them.”
As my colleague Claire Cain Miller pointed out, day care centers are operating at 88 percent capacity compared to 2019, and even “before the pandemic, child care did not cover everyone who needed it.” There were not enough spots, and for a quarter of families with children under 6, the cost of care was more than 10 percent of family income.
In Covid times, everything is worse. In a series of surveys performed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation in 2020, two-thirds of working parents said they changed their child-care arrangement because of the pandemic, and the majority of those parents were still struggling to find a permanent solution, according to Caitlin Codella, vice president of policy and programs at the foundation.
The struggle to find care is particularly acute in rural areas. This was a major problem before the pandemic — 3 in 5 rural communities lacked adequate child care supply, according to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy institute.
Brittany Lynch, 35, a mother of an almost 9-year-old and a 5-year-old, who lives outside Lyons, Colo., a town of under 2,000 residents near Rocky Mountain National Park, said that the waiting list for day care “is laughable, if you have a twisted sense of humor.”
In 2020, she tried to find a child-care spot for her daughter, who was then 3, in Lyons and nearby Estes Park, and was told the waiting lists were over a year long, by which time her daughter would be in kindergarten. She couldn’t get a babysitter to come out to her house, up winding mountain roads, either.
Ms. Lynch works as a project manager at a lighting design firm in Boulder, and even though her whole team was telecommuting during the pandemic, she arranged to go into the office, a 40-minute drive each way, because she found a spot in a day care center near work for her daughter. She did not really trust this day care place, but said it was better than nothing. (Ms. Lynch described it as “sketchy” and said that there was a lot of staff turnover.)
Even with that plan in place, there were points during the pandemic when she had to cut back on work to care for her daughter, and when she worked fewer hours she was paid less. As she and her husband, who is an architect, are still paying back student loans, money is tight. “I am a white, middle class, superaverage person,” she said. “If I struggle this much, I can’t even imagine what it’s like when it comes to others who don’t have it like me.”
According to data from the Rapid-EC project, an ongoing, national survey about the well-being of parents and children during the pandemic, parents’ levels of emotional distress shot up at the beginning of the pandemic. Save for a brief respite in the spring of 2021, before the Delta variant surge, levels have remained elevated by 10 to 15 percentage points compared to prepandemic measurements. “Emotional distress” levels are calculated by asking parents a variety of questions about depression, anxiety, loneliness and stress, said Philip Fisher, the director of the University of Oregon Center for Translational Neuroscience and the lead investigator on the Rapid-EC project.
Though parents of all backgrounds and income levels are much more distressed than they were before the pandemic, single parents, parents living in poverty and parents of children with disabilities are particularly emotionally taxed, Dr. Fisher said. “Uncertainty is the toxic ingredient” on top of everything else right now for parents, he said. They’re worried about the state of the world, their ability to do their jobs and the virus that still looms. “Child care is one piece of that,” Dr. Fisher said — parents know it can disappear at any moment and upend their fragile balance.
Jacqueline Sievert, 36, thought she had finally solved her day care problems when she found a spot for her 14-month-old child after being on waiting lists for months in Hamburg, N.Y., just outside of Buffalo. A few days before her son was supposed to start at the center, she got a message telling her that the day care was closed immediately and indefinitely. Ms. Sievert looked up the center on the website for New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services and found that its license had been suspended indefinitely for multiple serious violations, including children left without “competent supervision.”
This week, Ms. Sievert’s mother is watching her son, but that’s not a workable solution for her and her husband. “I’m not sure what we’ll do next week now; we’re piecing it together. Neither of us have careers where we can easily watch an active 1-year-old for the entire day,” she said. Ms. Sievert manages a team at a commercial bank and her husband is an operations lead at a large company.
About three hundred miles east in Albany, Ms. Stenta said that she and her husband are “exhausted.” She doesn’t know what the fix might be to secure day care services for her sons in the near term. They don’t live near extended family, and making child care arrangements has always been more of a hardship for parents of children with disabilities, even in nonpandemic times.
“There’s certainly no social structures in place for this,” Ms. Stenta said.
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